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Whistling in the Dark (1941) was the first feature film to star comedian Red Skelton in the lead, and was a surprise hit for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; its success meant that the vaudeville and radio comic would enjoy a healthy movie career throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s as well. Skelton's film debut had been in the RKO feature Having a Wonderful Time (1938), where he was featured performing a couple of uninterrupted solo routines, including his famous "dunking donuts" bit. He also appeared in a couple of shorts for Vitaphone before being signed to the biggest studio in Hollywood, MGM. (Reportedly, the "donuts" routine was run at the Metro screening room for years as executive inspiration on turning out comedy). At first Skelton was merely assigned comedy relief in films such as Flight Command (1940), the war drama with Robert Taylor and Walter Pidgeon; and in the popular Dr. Kildare series.
Paramount Pictures, meanwhile, was having great success with films like The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), which surrounded their resident funnyman - Bob Hope with mystery, pretty girls, and dangerous situations. Former vaudeville comic Hope was known for snappy wordplay, of course, and was given plenty to react to in these films; the result was big box-office. Casting about for a similar vehicle for Skelton, producer George Haight and other MGM executives looked no further than the 1933 MGM film Whistling in the Dark, adapted from a stage play, which featured Ernest Truex as a mystery writer who, with his girlfriend, is held captive by a house full of gangsters and forced to come up with a sure-fire murder plot that head mobster Edward Arnold can use in real life.
For the 1941 Skelton remake, the story was "jazzed up" with several ingenious, modern touches. Instead of a mystery writer, our hero became a radio detective and the ordinary mobsters were turned into colorful cultists. The film opens at a cult ceremony at the creepy estate Silver Haven, where Joseph Jones (Conrad Veidt, sporting a thick German accent and a great name for a cult leader) conducts middle-aged women in Moon worshipping and spouts homilies like "we part in radiant contentment." Jones and his cronies discuss getting rid of the nephew of a departed follower in order to inherit her million-dollar estate. On the radio in the next room is a broadcast of The Grape-O Mix Crime Hour, featuring Wally Benton (Red Skelton) as crime solver "The Fox". Following the broadcast (during which we see the frantic goings-on of actors, sound effects men, and musicians hitting their cues like seasoned pros), Benton must deal with his own personal dilemma: he wants to pop the question to his long-time fiance Carol Lambert (Ann Rutherford), but he is still cozying up to the sponsor's daughter, Fran Post (Virginia Grey). Benton's manager, 'Buzz' Baker (Eve Arden) has put him up to the deception. Jones and his gang show up for the West Coast broadcast that evening and corner Benton in his dressing room, pretending to be rival sponsors. Benton, Carol, and Fran are soon being held captive at Silver Haven, as the cultists demand that "The Master Brain of Murder" come up with a foolproof plan for eliminating the nephew that stands in the way of their million dollars.
In his Paramount scare comedies, Bob Hope may have had Paulette Goddard at his side, but in Whistling in the Dark MGM surrounds Skelton with no fewer than three attractive co-stars. Rutherford, Grey, and Arden are also given a chance to share in the comedy bits, although Skelton is clearly the focus of attention. Rutherford later recalled the director of all three Whistling movies, S. Sylvan Simon: "Sylvan had one terrible problem. He could not control his laughter, at least when Red was at the helm." Simon was fine during rehearsals, Rutherford said, but "...when it came time to shoot it, out of my peripheral vision I would see Sylvan sitting in his canvas chair, tears streaming down his face and a handkerchief wadded in his mouth. Because Red knew what a patsy he had in Sylvan and he would invariably come up with another little bit of business that hadn't been rehearsed before and Sylvan had to be quiet or he'd ruin the take."
In the New York Times Bosley Crowther wrote that "[Whistling in the Dark] is a lively and amusing film, continuously creepy and comic and properly loaded with gags." Crowther was suitably impressed with the nation's newest comedy star, saying that "Metro has really turned up an impressive young Bob Hopeful... Mr. Skelton is another of those blithe and easy gag-busters whose careless way with a line is a thing to be greatly enjoyed and whose use of the double-take is a studied accomplishment. When his mind snaps his muscles taut in a moment of dire emergency, when the impact of a threat sinks in after slight delay, he stiffens like a man grabbing hold of a highly charged wire. And his face becomes a mask of comic horror. Mr. Skelton shocks beautifully and often."
Variety wrote that "[Skelton's] timing and delivery of laugh lines and situations despite the familiar hoke injected catches maximum audience reaction." The industry magazine offered that the comedian "...displays possibilities of future starring comedy importance if provided with proper material from here in." Time magazine said that Skelton "manages to produce considerable hilarity" and said, "[Whistling in the Dark is] not the funniest picture out of Hollywood. But it has enough effective low comedy to ease M.G.M.'s brand-new cinecomic down the ways without swamping him."
Skelton enjoyed a long career at MGM, committing more of his vaudeville routines to celluloid in such musicals as Lady Be Good (1941) and Ship Ahoy (1942). Although the comedian was ultimately more at home doing sketch comedy on radio and television, MGM provided several top-notch feature length vehicles for Skelton, such as A Southern Yankee (1948) and The Yellow Cab Man (1950). Along the way, two sequels to the popular Whistling in the Dark were released, Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), both featuring Skelton as "The Fox" and Ann Rutherford as his perpetual fiance.
Producer: George Haight
Director: S. Sylvan Simon
Screenplay: Robert MacGunigle, Harry Clork, Albert Mannheimer; Laurence Gross, Edward Childs Carpenter (play); Eddie Moran, Elliott Nugent (uncredited, contributing writer)
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Film Editing: Frank E. Hull
Cast: Red Skelton (Wally Benton), Conrad Veidt (Joseph Jones), Ann Rutherford (Carol Lambert), Virginia Grey ('Fran' Post), 'Rags' Ragland (Sylvester), Henry O'Neill (Philip Post), Eve Arden ('Buzz' Baker), Paul Stanton (Jennings), Don Douglas (Gordon Thomas), Don Costello ('Noose' Green), William Tannen (Robert Graves), Reed Hadley (Beau Smith), Mariska Aldrich (Hilda), Lloyd Corrigan (Harvey Upshaw), George Carleton (Deputy Commissioner O'Neill), Will Lee (Herman), Ruth Robinson (Mrs. Robinson)
BW-78m. Closed Captioning.
by John M. Miller
Whistling in the Dark (1941)
Though the studio was not known for its comedies, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer put in an early bid on Richard "Red" Skelton, a vaudeville and nightclub performer turned radio comic who was making a name for himself in 1938. Metro plugged the rubber-faced comedian into a handful of films, most often as comic relief, among them Frank Borzage's Flight Command (1940) and two entries in the studio's long-running Dr. Kildare series of hospital dramas starring Lew Ayres. Skelton so impressed the front office with his sixth-billed turn in the show business musical comedy Lady Be Good (1941) that the decision was made to bump him up to star player, beginning with the old dark house spoof Whistling in the Dark (1941). Though production of horror films in Hollywood had ceased after 1936 (the genre was yet another victim of the spoilsport Production Code), the major studios began working Gothic thrillers back into their production schedules by 1939. Paramount had scored big by plugging funnyman Bob Hope into their 1939 remake of The Cat and the Canary and its follow-up, The Ghost Breakers (1940) and by following suit MGM was merely playing the percentages. Sticking close to the template stamped by Hope, Whistling in the Dark dropped Skeleton's radio mystery host, an expert in murder methods, into the clutches of cult leader/con man Conrad Veidt and confined its action, for the most part, to a spooky old house.
In lining up a vehicle for Skelton, MGM dusted off an old property, a successful Broadway play of the same name written by Laurence Gross and Edward Childs Carpenter that the studio had brought to the big screen for the first time in 1933. Reprising the roles they had created onstage, Ernest Truex played the protagonist (a mystery writer rather than a radio personality) in the earlier film and Edward Arnold the villain, with direction entrusted to Elliott Nugent - who would, six years later, helm Paramount's The Cat and the Canary. Reworked by Robert MacGunigle, Harry Clork, and Albert Mannheimer, Whistling in the Dark was tailored to fit Skelton's comic aptitude; like Hope, Skelton's shtick was that of a cowardly hero whose manifest inadequacies add up, in the eleventh hour and against all odds, into a win for the good guys. Production began in June 1941 and wrapped four weeks later, with the film's west coast premiere set for August. Backing Skelton's play were Ann Rutherford (as the love interest), comic dolt Rags Ragland and, buried way down in the cast list, Eve Arden. (Skelton and Arden had made their film debuts in Having Wonderful Time in 1938.) The combination of chills and chortles pleased Metro and moviegoers alike and two follow-ups were ordered: Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), all of which reunited the now-proven comedy team of Skelton, Rutherford, and Ragland.
Though Skelton would make thirty-odd features as an MGM contract player, his true medium would prove to be in the burgeoning medium of television. Built into his MGM contract (a codicil his home studio would come to regret as the silver screen lost audiences to the cathode tube) was an opportunity for Skelton to flex his talents in radio (which he did as the star of his own show from 1941 until 1953) and TV. Making his small screen debut on NBC in 1951, Skelton moved The Red Skelton Show to CBS, where the program remained on the air (in one form or another) from 1953 until 1970; the variety show's final season was broadcast once again by NBC before Skelton's signoff in August 1971. Skelton's Whistling in the Dark castmate Eve Arden would also enjoy a long association with television, as the star of the long-running CBS comedy Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956), as well as The Eve Arden Show (1957-1958), The Mothers-In-Law (1967-1969), and as a frequent guest on The Red Skelton Hour.
By Richard Harland Smith
Mystery Movie Series of the 1940s by Ron Backer (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010)
Red Skelton: The Man Behind the Mask by Wes Gehring (Indiana Historical Society, 2013)